A shadow fell over Sam’s keyboard. He looked up to see George standing with his arms folded awkwardly, Sam’s fingers faltered mid-entry. Clearly it was time for their “meeting.”
As he followed the boss into the inner office, Sam wished that he’d had time for a shave. Ali had shoved Fiona into his arms and rubbed her mouth as she told him to watch the wee one while she had a shower - five minutes of peace was the least she deserved. Sam had jiggled the wriggling body around and tried to avoid looking at the clock. He only had less than quarter of an hour before he’d miss the bus. Fi had batted him in the nose with one of her tiny yet freakishly strong fists and he’d done his best to smile at her through a sudden influx of tears.
George opened the door and ushered him into the managers’ room. Sam took a look around. He’d only been in there once before; it didn’t look any different. Philipa was sitting with her back to her desk with a thick folder balanced on her lap. Sam hesitated for a moment before saying hello. She smiled back as George coughed, adjusted his ill-fitting trousers, and asked him to sit down. Sam lowered himself into a squeaky chair that shifted under his weight, as though it was trying to escape from him. He pushed the shoes (the ones Ali had bought for him when she saw them reduced to half-price) into the floor and flexed the muscles in his thighs.
“Now Sam” George said as he settled into his seat and picked up a pen. “I’m sure you know why we called this little meeting.”
It was only a holiday, and who knew when he’d get a chance for another. Another like this anyway. If Craig wasn’t so loaded (bastard), and so crazy to drag them all away, he’d never have gone. It was just like Craig to make such an overblown gesture, people turned thirty every minute of the day, but Craig had to make a big deal out of it. Pack his best mates on a plane and turn what was for most folks a nice night out in a local into an alcohol-sodden extravaganza. Not that Sam was complaining. If it wasn’t for Craig’s generosity he wouldn’t have been able to go. The plane flight alone was equivalent to three months of nappies. A long weekend in Prague with the boys would be taking food from the mouth of his babe - if you listened to Ali that was. But she couldn’t really complain when it wasn’t his money. Their money. Sam still felt a twinge of guilt as he kissed her goodbye. But it wasn’t the kind of thing you could let yourself miss out on.
He’d been planning to give her a call when they got settled into the hotel, but when he tried the signal bar on his phone refused to flicker into life. He tried again from the pub and again when they got back, but still nothing doing. He lay under the unfamiliar sheets and tried to sleep. It was already late by the time they arrived and the first thing they’d done was find the nearest bar that served food - and had an English translation next to their menu.
Now he was knackered, but also more than a little drunk. and he couldn’t get comfortable. The bed was palatable enough – it just wasn’t quite right. When Fi was first born she’d slept in the middle of the not-quite-queen-sized bed, with Ali curved protectively round her while Sam lay on the edge holding his breath. Then Ali had found out it that it was meant to be bad for babies - that they really could be crushed by their parents - and moved her into the cot. Now he normally slept with Ali’s back pushed into his chest. He could hardly remember the last time he slept alone.
“We will be keeping a record of the details of this meeting. You’ll get a copy.”
“This fucking sucks.”
“Ssh.” Sam looked at the tour guide to see if he’d reacted to Pete’s overly loud whisper but the guy continued his spiel, switching from Czech to German as they moved on to a new vat. Maybe he couldn’t hear over the clinking of bottles, or maybe he was just used to boisterous idiots like Pete. An American woman swaddled in a huge puffy jacket frowned at them and Sam tossed her an apologetic smile.
“What? It does, I never thought I’d be so miserable in a bloody beer factory.”
“There can’t be much more to show us, shut up and look forward to the samples.” “It’d be better if I knew what the fuck he was saying.”
“Read the bloody card,” Sam said and waved one of the sheets of paper that they’d been given when they’d arrived. Pete raised his top lip into a sneer. The procession stopped in front of a bulky contraption that fitted the caps onto the full bottles. The machinery wheezed and hissed as though it was as bored as the factory staff.
“Fascinating. Really.” Joe said.
“The smell is driving me nuts, I’m dying on a cold one.”
“Ah Craig, the man of impeccable cultural learning, all the beauty of the Czech Republic and where does he take us? The Budvar factory.”
“Shut it. Hey, I think it’s over,” Craig said as he cuffed Sam, slightly harder than was warranted, on the arm. The tour guy gave a strange little bow then vanished through an employee-only looking door. The few other tourists who’d accompanied them on the incomprehensible journey through the huge silos and tarnished machinery started to drift away.
“Where are we meant to go? Where’s the free beer?”
“Maybe there isn’t any.”
“You’re kidding me, I didn’t go through all that for no beer.” Craig sounded genuinely offended; Sam just shrugged and wondered how Ali was doing. If she were missing him yet.
“Fuck it, I saw a bar back there. Lets just buy some, it’ll be dirt cheap anyway.”
None of the folks that had endured the tour with them had found their way to the bar. A few men sat around drinking quietly and Sam idly wondered if they worked in the factory or if they lived nearby.
“It tastes different.”
“It’s just the same!”
“Ah, poor Sam. It’s been so long since he’s been let out for a drink he’s forgotten what beer tastes like.”
“Come on then, get the photos out. You know you want to show her off,” Craig said. Sam grinned and pulled out a phone a few models older and a lot less flash than the one lying next to Craig’s pint.
“The camera on this isn’t so great so they’re a bit fuzzy . . .
” “Aw, she’s a wee charmer. How old is she now?”
“Almost four months. You should come round some time.”
“Aye, I should and all.”
“Who’d have thought you’d be the first one to settle down.” Joe said as he reached into his pocket and dragged out a handful of coins. He deposited the unfamiliar Koruna’s on the bar and began to shuffle through them.
“Tell me about it. Put that shit away, my round.” Sam said.
“Nah, nah, my round. We’ll drink to your wee one.” Craig drained his glass and held it up to the bargirl.
“Alright then.” Sam had thought about insisting - he didn’t exactly like always being in Craig’s favour - but realistically, the less money he spent the better.
“So did you ever see that Polish chick again?” Pete asked while Craig paid. Craig grinned at the girl who was serving him, then shook his head.
“Who’s this?” Sam asked.
“Met her a few weeks ago I guess.” Craig said as he pushed the fresh steins across the bar, lining one up in front of each of them.
“At Brannigans wasn’t it?” Joe asked.
“Yeah, mad night that was.”
“Fuck yeah, I was puking the whole next day,” Joe said as he lit a fag. “Had to walk out of a sales review and everything.”
“Things going well at the pub?’ Sam asked.
“Aye, not bad. Looks like I’ll be getting bonus, so can’t complain.”
“So what happened to the girl?”
“Nothing. Had a few dates, wasn’t working out,” Craig said as he ran a hand through his spiked hair: he had a proper wanky haircut, the kind you got in salons where the girls knew your name.
“She wasn’t putting out you mean.”
“Fuck off, drink your beer.” Craig lifted him glass. “To Fi right.”
“To the wee ‘un.” Pete chimed as they leaned in to clink steins.
“Maybe you could give us an explanation for your actions.”
God it felt so good. The hangover of earlier had dissolved under the weight of the meaty-dumpling-thing they’d had for dinner, and the cold glass of beer in front of him was smooth and satisfying. Sam gazed at the girl who occupied the other half of his bench. A swath of fluffy blonde hair practically obliterated the face hidden within. His hand itched to stroke it, to pull it, to wrap its softness around his knuckles. He found himself involuntarily giving his head a shake.
They had taken over the bloody bar. When they’d first arrived, a good few hours ago now, there had been a couple of locals dotted around; compact men and dark eyed women who’d been drinking quietly and seriously. Now there was just the lads and a feisty bunch of Irish girls. At first he’d assumed that they were Czech too, his ears so confused by unfamiliar sounds that he expected to understand nothing. It was only when Craig had gotten talking to the wee dark one that he’d picked up on the lilt. The girl with the nice hair, Emily, was still talking to him.
“I was fucking terrified.” Sam nodded sympathetically. “My hands were, like, all shaky. I had three vodka’s in the airport bar to settle my nerves but I must have stunk. God knows what the guy sitting next to me must have thought.”
“I’m sure he thought you were sweet.”
“I’m sure he knew you were just nervous. Loads of people are scared of flying.”
“Thanks.” She pushed some of the hair to one side, giving him a chance to take in her eyes and tiny ear until the mop slid back down into her face. “How long are you lot here for then?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow, couldn’t get more time off work. These guys are sticking around for another few days though.”
“That’s a shame, we’re here till the end of the week.”
“Alright?” Pete half fell onto the bench opposite. His face was shiny with sweat and his eyebrow ring was only hanging on by the thinnest thread of skin. Apparently people who worked in IT were allowed to look like tossers. At Sam’s work they’d made that temp take out her nose stud, even though no one outside the office even saw her.
“Fine, fine. I’m Pete by the way.” He held out a beer-damped hand to Emily and she shook it enthusiastically. Sam felt an unexpected surge of irritation.
“Did you even think about the fact that we would be left short staffed?”
Sam snapped a quick picture with Craig’s swanky digital camera and smiled at the dodgy faces the subjects were all pulling.
“Nice guys, nice.”
“Come on, Mission Impossible style. I’m what’s his face that pretended to get shot.” Pete posed in a mock wounded way near the edge of the Charles Bridge so Sam trained the camera on him. The backdrop was amazing, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a film. No wonder so many people made their movies here. None of it felt like real life.
“Lets see.” Pete walked over, grabbed the expensive camera from him and scrolled through the photos, snorting with laughter. Sam checked his watch.
“I’d better get back to the hotel.”
“How many times am I gonna have to ask you? Just stay, it’s only another two days.” Craig said loudly as he and Joe walked over to join them.
“And how many times do I have to say no? I’ve got to get back to work.”
“Fuck work. This is a one off thing.”
“But the flights . . . Ali.”
“I’ve already told you I’ll sort the flights, don’t worry about it. And Ali won’t really mind.”
“I dunno.” They had begun to walk back across the bridge in amongst the swirl of tourists. Four men played a slightly mournful tune which filled the air with something like nostalgia. They wore thick gloves with the fingers cut off and mist issued from their mouths and instruments. Craig slung an arm around his shoulder even though he had to reach up to do it.
“Just phone her mate. Then phone your work and make something up, say the plane was cancelled or whatever.” Sam sighed in a way that indicated he was tempted and Craig pushed on. “Two little phone calls and you can come to that sauna with us tonight, meet up with those Irish girls tomorrow, have a little fun. Come on.”
“Think of this as a chance to tell your side of the story.”
The walk back to the hotel took longer than it should have. Joe insisted on buying a cheeseburger from McDonalds even though everyone gave him shit for it.
“For fucksake Joe.”
“What?” He asked with mustard clinging to the moustache he’d grown especially for the trip. Sam knew he should try and hurry everyone along but it was nice to be walking through crowds of unconcerned tourists. No buggy to deal with, no Ali worrying that the baby was cold, tired, hungry. Just him and the guys. Same old jokes, same innuendos, everyone acting like there was nothing worth worrying about.
“Check this out,” Pete yelled stopping dead in the middle of the path causing two old women to exchange looks with each other then bustle to get past. The guys crowded around Pete and stood staring at the plasma screen embedded in the wall of what looked like a friendly little nightclub. Two girls gyrated slowly to music that wasn’t audible out on the street, they were obviously stone bored but still somehow sexy.
“We’re coming back here later,” Craig announced. Sam shrugged; it seemed kind of screwed up to see those girls going for it. Grinding away sadly at half two in the afternoon, there for anyone walking past to see.
Sam found himself staring at Craig’s mobile. His had been relegated to the bottom of his bag. Ali first.
“Hi, it’s me.”
“Oh, good just you calling at this time – I thought . . .”
“Ok. Shush baby, shush.” He could hear Fi grizzling and he pictured Ali with the phone clamped to one hunched shoulder and the baby to another.
“It’s just . . . well, Craig’s asking me to stay the next few days.”
“I know, I know. But, well it would mean a lot to him.”
“To you you mean,” Ali said. Sam blew a quiet stream of exasperation from his lips, trying to do it away from the mouthpiece of the phone but she probably heard it. “You’re kind of leaving me in the shit you know.”
“I’m sorry honey.”
“You’ve decided anyway haven’t you? It doesn’t make any difference what I say.”
“That’s not true.”
“If you ask me to come home today I will.”
“And then make me feel guilty about it? No way. You stay if you really want to, but don’t expect me to be happy about it.” Sam looked out the window at the quiet street below.
The guys were drinking in the lobby, the place didn’t have a bar but you could buy beer, as well as coffee and shower caps, from the check-in desk.
“Right. Which pub first?”
“You did it?” Craig asked incredulously and Sam nodded by way of a reply.
“What did you say?”
“Just that I was staying.”
“Wow, you didn’t even make something up?”
“You’ve more balls than I thought. What didn’t your boss say then?”
“Nothing much. Lets get going then, I need a drink.” Sam started heading towards the door, hoping that they’d follow. He’d left a message with the office junior, even though she’d offered to get George for him. So many excuses had run through his mind but somehow he’d discarded them all. Cancelled planes would be easy to check up on, a few clicks on the internet and they’d know he was making it up. Family emergencies were no good because Ali would be too pissed off to cover for him. George was a suspicious bastard and disasters that just happened to befall his employees when they were meant to be returning from a long weekend would have him dialling immediately: supposedly to offer condolences. As though anyone with a nothing-job like Sam’s would be able to give a shit about it. He would have been able to conjure something up if he’d thought hard enough, he just didn’t see the point.
“Do you think that that’s an adequate level of commitment? The kind of behaviour we’d want from our staff?”
Craig had invited the girls back to continue the party. The poor guy behind the desk was no match for them. It seemed that “Frank from Persia” worked all the time. In fact when they’d popped back to pick up more money that afternoon Sam had found him snoozing on one of the formally plush sofas. Frank protested the best he could, in what must have been his third, if not fourth, language, but eventually he’d thrown his hands up in a restrained gesture of defeat and handed over the knobbly wooden blocks attached to their room keys.
“No worries mate. You want a beer?” Joe tried to press a cold Budvar on Frank who finally accepted it after much shaking of his head. The girls were giggling amongst themselves and fussing with things in their bags as they waited. Sam had forgotten about them for a moment.
The lobby was too bright; the cheap chandeliers had bare bulbs whose stark light ricochet from the numerous mirrors dotted around the walls. He squinted and tried to ignore the knowledge that he needed to piss, badly.
“You alright.” Craig peered into his face, obviously thinking that Sam’s quietness meant he was close to puking.
“Right, upstairs.” Joe started to make ushering motions, the bags of bottles clutched in his hand making ominous clinking noises.
“Ssh.” Pete admonished and waggled an accusing finger. Joe directed the girls towards the stairs in a pantomimed show of silence that was anything but quiet. Sam followed a little unsteadily, he looked back to give the steward an apologetic shrug but Frank’s head was already nodding towards the check-in desk.
Craig’s room was the biggest, obviously, so they all piled in there. He’d set up his i-pod and travel speakers and Razorlight filled the room. The girl that Joe fancied kept turning the music down but as soon as she was distracted Craig would just turn in back up again.
“If it’s a problem someone will complain.”
“And then we’ll tell them to fuck off.’ Pete added. Sam lit a cigarette for the blond girl, Emily, then one for himself, they hadn’t been able to find any ashtrays so the soap dish had been commandeered and the blackened foam engulfed the crumpled filters in a way that turned his stomach a little. This weekend was killing his lungs. No fags for nearly ten months, then three packs in as many days.
“What the fuck Joe, you clumsy bastard.” Sam looked down at the dark patch that was eating up his shirt and the thin layer of Johnnie Walker Blue Label that remained in his tumbler.
“Sorry pal.” Joe clutched at his shoulder for a minute before stumbling on to pick up the cigarettes he’d been reaching for. Sam rubbed at the clammy wetness absentmindedly.
“I’d better put something else on.” He’d already made it to the door when a voice too close beside him said that it would chum him.
“I want to check out your room.” She said with a smile and Sam nodded vaguely, not able to think of a way to tell her not to. The hallways were also heavily mirrored and gave the place the feeling of some kind of labyrinth. He could see a blond head bobbing along behind him in the reflections which distracted him further. She moved even closer when the key skidded around the metal disconcertingly but he managed to force it in just before her hand touched his. The state of his room was embarrassing, he’d been enjoying the freedom of just chucking everything on the floor and knowing no one else would be affected by his mess.
“I’ll have a clean shirt somewhere . . .” he said as Emily settled onto his unmade bed and gazed around as though enthralled by the uninspiring landscapes which graced the walls.
“I brought some beers,” she said.
“I forgot an opener though.’
“Ok.” He scanned the surfaces even though he knew he wouldn’t find one. The shirt he’d found on the chair hung limply from his hand. “I don’t know . . .”
“Wait, have you got a lighter?’ He pulled one from his jeans and handed it over, it had a naked girl painted on the side but she didn’t react. Her brow lowered a little in concentration as she applied it to the kinked metal top.
“Careful.” Sam had sudden visions of chipped bottlenecks and cut fingers but the cap clicked off easily and she held the beer up for him.
“Thanks. That’s pretty impressive.”
“No bother. I’ve had plenty of practice.” She opened her own quickly. “Cheers,” she said and took a long pull from the bottle.
“Yeah cheers,” he replied. He wondered what age she was. At first he’d thought late twenties like him, but now she looked much younger.
“Was is nursing you said you were studying?’ He asked.
“Uh-huh, come and sit down,” she said patting the mattress beside her.
“Must be tough.”
“Well I’m a tough girl,” she smiled at him. Sam felt like he had something caught in his throat. She was waiting for something, but he’d just been going through the motions, behaving in a way he hadn’t needed to for a long time.
“That’s better,” she said when he gingerly lowered himself onto the bed. Did she really want to sleep with him? Sure they’d kind of been flirting but he’d assumed that she knew the score. It was just a bit of fun. But she was looking at him in a bleary sexy kind of way, and he kind of liked it. For a second, a second, he pictured what she might be like without the slinky cardigan and surprisingly short skirt but he quickly forced the image away.
“I just thought that being honest about it would be the best thing to do.”
Ok, so he’d kissed her. A tiny one. An inconsequential little peck. More experimental than anything else. He’d stopped it almost immediately – although he hadn’t been sure he wanted to.
“I’m sorry, you’re lovely but I can’t.”
“You know,” he shrugged hopelessly. She drew back straightaway.
“Why?” Her voice had lost the flirty high edge but not the soft slur of alcohol.
“I have a girlfriend. A baby.” A little huffing noise issued from her lips and even though they’d barely moved she seemed far away. He hoped she wouldn’t make it difficult. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to . . .”
“Mean to what? Lead me on like a fucking idiot.” She crossed her arms across her chest.
“I wasn’t thinking.”
“Too right. Fucksake, I’m going back through.”
“Ok.” He sat and looked at the floor as she stood up, straightened her skirt; she left with something of a swagger. Sam hooked one hand on either side of his neck and stared at the worn carpet. After a minute or two he fished the redundant mobile phone from his bag and held it for a moment. Not even sure who he would have called if the signal bar hadn’t been so lifeless.
“Well, we appreciate your honesty Sam . . .”
He woke up with a panicky flutter in his chest. The baby was crying. But it wasn’t Fi - no - it was Joe thumping on the door and telling him to move his arse. Sam rubbed his greasy eyes and shouted that he’d be down in a minute.
The dining room was almost empty - most of the tourists had already breakfasted and had begun their explorations for the day. Pete was overfilling his cup with dark filter coffee, Sam said morning and waved over at the others who were huddled round a table bedecked with a floral cover and crowded with crockery.
“Alright then stud.”
“Had a little fun last night did ya?”
“Don’t talk shit.”
“Come on, you and that blond girl were away long enough.” Pete said over his shoulder as he sauntered away. Sam shoved things on his plate without really looking at them. He walked over to their table slowly.
“Sam’s gone all coy.”
“For fucksake, nothing happened. She just chummed me back and I changed my shirt. We were away, what, ten minutes at the most.”
“Can’t have been much fun for her then eh?” Pete grinned.
“We won’t say anything to Ali.”
“There’s nothing to say!”
“Right mate,” Joe said as he continued to wolf down a Danish pastry. The hotel’s buffet was all cakes, buns and sweet breads. Every morning the same. Sam forced himself to take a bite of a chocolaty slice of cake.
“You know I’m not like that.” He said with a layer of thick sugar coating his tongue. He felt sick.
“Chill out Sam, it doesn’t matter.”
“ . . . I mean it’s a question of teamwork . . .”
They all looked as shit as he felt. Pasty skin and rat-pink eyes. What a bunch of losers they were. Five nights of partying like there was no tomorrow and now they all had to go home; although Craig was probably just going to go right on partying. Bastard. Right now all Sam wanted to do was cuddle up to Ali; make a sandwich out of their bodies with Fi squirming in the middle. But Ali would be pissed at him. She’d say it was ok, but he’d know wasn’t really.
As soon as they settled into the black cab that Craig had insisted on Sam switched his phone on. It juddered into life with a stream of jingles, each signalling a message. No one was happy with him. He struggled to hear the badly recorded voices over Joe’s complaint that he’d misplaced the vodka he’d bought at duty-free. Ali wondering if he’d arrived safely in Prague. A slightly more stressed sounding Ali asking him to call her back. A frustrated Ali saying if he wasn’t getting these messages he was an idiot for not checking if his phone would work abroad. What if there had been some kind of emergency? George telling him they would be having a meeting on Friday - if he had the decency to turn up. Then Ali again, wondering if he was back in the country yet and if he could pick some nappies up in the corner shop on his way back home.
“Popular guy eh?” Craig said nudging him.
“Yeah.” Sam replied.
“ . . . If we didn’t fire you then everyone would think they could just take days off whenever they felt like it.”
“Do you . . .”
“I’m sorry.” George didn’t seem particularly sorry but Phillipa looked at him with a sympathy he hadn’t thought her capable of. Sam’s back burned with sweat and he wondered what he’d been thinking.
“Yeah.” He stood abruptly; the meeting was clearly over for him. “I suppose I should . . .” He gestured vaguely as he foresaw clearing his desk. A photo of his girls and a wrist support he’d bought to try and alleviate the nagging pain in his wrist – it wouldn’t take long. George nodded and the three of them also stood and began pushing their chairs back in to their normal resting places. Sam watched them getting back to business for a moment before turning to leave. The door resisted his attempts to pull it shut behind him and when he looked back he found Phillipa following him out into the corridor. She clicked the door closed and laid a hand on his arm.
“I’ll write you a reference.” She said quietly and Sam blinked slowly in surprise, forgetting to thank her. “Why didn’t you make something up Sam? You know that by telling the truth you gave George no option but to let you go.” He shook his head and wondered why it was that no one seemed to expect him to do the right thing anymore.